Feb 18, 2006

Racks of beads jangle on pegs, as the floats prepare for the Krewe of Centaur's Mardi Gras parade, Louisiana's largest this year. Riders storm through the three-story floats, loading more glitterware. A Catholic priest blesses each one, hurling holy droplets
: "my prayer is that's all the water you'll see today," Monsignor Earl Provenza intones under a slug-grey sky.

I weave among the floats, prior to the parade's launch. My scarlet-bob wig is topped by the Jay hat, the one that somehow morphs a pretty woman into a trash-talkin' punk from Kevin Smith's NJ trilogy.

As numerous colleagues have pointed out, this Mata Hari disguise can come in handy.

A silver-maned woman proffers vodka jello shots at the KISS float, just beside the Star Wars tribute. My eyes rest on Chewbacca, as she syringes the rubbery mass into my mouth. "What have I done?" I ask, after choking it all down in two wussy gulps.

"Five cc of liquor. Two ounces of jello," the nurse replies.

What I avoided in three years of college occurs in three short Shreveport days. Amazing.

Freshly initiated – and inebriated – we wander among the 32 floats. Each receives $1,200 from the Krewe annually. Other design expenses draw from the pockets of the lieutenants. Yet each rider might shell out $75 in dues, $50 for a float-slot and at least $250 in trinkets.

This party ain't cheap.

Soon 4.5 million "throws" – mainly beads, but also stuffed animals and commemorative cups – will litter the six-mile parade route.

An aviatrix in a bomber jacket and goggles exhibits her float, first-prize winner for its airplane with whirling props. She leers at twenty-something Brian and forces more jello shots, in restrained salsa tubs this time, on us.

"Down in one," she hollers. "You need liquid protection on a cold day!"

The cherry blubber hits my throat and slides south. I cough it down, hating the sweetener. But our hostess approves: "you there, Red, you've done this before, I see."

"Not much," I think. But my scarlet lips smile.

Mardi Gras isn't who you are. It's who you want to be – today.

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